Let’s forget Rome and Florence for the moment and fast forward to a small hamlet on the Liguria coast. Nestled between Genova to the north and Camogli to the south lies a brightly painted village named Recco.
It is famous for its water polo team, steep cliffs above the sea, and foremost for its focaccia with cheese.
Upon arriving in Sori, which is a stone’s throw from Recco, we sought out the nearest place to sample this local delicacy. The woman in the trattoria above our apartment made it from scratch for our lunch. At first sight, I thought we had made a language gaff—the focaccia wasn’t at all what I expected.
It appeared on my plate as a very flat pizza with nearly transparent pastry enclosing both top and bottom. Sealed within were layers of fresh stracchino cheese that oozed forth from the crunchy crust. The taste was pure and simple— heaven on earth—each creamy pie made for one person to devour–by hand or precariously with a fork and knife.
We know very little about the original recipe nor the Ligurian people because they left very little written history.
Legend has it that Recco’s focaccia with cheese was originally created during a Saracen attack. These Pirates of the Muslim World, who excelled in art and science, once threatened the ancient Roman tribes. The Ligurians escaped taking refuge in the hills behind the village of Recco.
What year was this? 1530 or so, and with meager provisions, they took oil and flour and prepared a stuffed dough and filled it with cheese. They cooked it directly on the slate, creating the original recipe which is still well known as “Focaccia al Formaggio.”
They say the recipe is simple (at least for the people of Recco). It consists of a pastry made with flour, olive oil, and salt—it’s the only focaccia without yeast. Cheese is positioned and secured between the pastry layers before baking.
For hundreds of years, Ligurian grandmothers continued the tradition in homes and hearths. Then sometime during the 19th century, it began popping up on menus of simple trattorias in Recco and the surrounding villages.
In the 1950s many claimed fame to the original recipe. There was a skirmish of sorts as to who made the “original” version.
In order to protect this culinary jewel, the “Focaccia di Recco col formaggio” consortium was created to promote the history and culinary value of their focaccia.
They were soon awarded the European PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) for the Recco, Avegno, Sori and Camogli municipalities.
Their cheese focaccia is produced in compliance with PGI by local bakers and restaurants. It can be served forth on greaseproof paper or directly on a dish paired with a slightly effervescent white wine.
Another variety that can be found all along this “Paradiso gulf” is focaccette, which is fried and filled with cheese.
There are also amazing sheets of “traditional” focaccia which can be very thin like a slice of bread or fatly stout and soft.
The thin version can be used to sandwich such things as prosciutto and cheese.
The hefty more traditional focaccia is deeply indented and filled with salt and oil. It’s ubiquitous and sometimes covered with all manner of delicious regional specialties.
The variety of garnishes is positively stupendous—green olives and sardines, thinly cut and layered potatoes, mozzarella and onions, prosciutto and Parmigiano Reggiano or pecorino with pesto. Whatever your flavor, you will never focaccia it quite the same again.
These luscious square pies can be found almost at every corner. They’re cut with scissors and sold by weight, wrapped up like a precious gift with inscribed paper.
The area is deeply recognized for its culinary traditions and focaccia is not the only delight to be discovered.
In the small hamlet of Sori, we found fresh local pansotti pasta dressed with walnut sauce (salsa di noci). The richness of the walnuts, cream, and pecorino cheese made a hearty background for the round ravioli-like dumplings.
Of course, we had to sample the regions famous fresh troffiette pasta with basil pesto. The thin and twisted pasta is cooked al dente with fresh green pesto dolloped cold upon its steaming mound.
After sampling these tangible delights along the Ligurian coast, I began to notice that many of the things that went in my mouth had the European PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) seal.
The PGI seal is the result of an EU law that aims to promote and protect the names and quality of regional agricultural products and food.
Many of the wines, cheeses, hams, sausages, and olives, beer, balsamic, bread, and vegetables that I ate bore the PGI seal.
Along with the tangible enjoyment of taste comes the recognition of the intangible cultural heritage of place and food.
By protecting the reputation of regional foods, Italians promote rural agriculture and help producers maintain premium prices. This, in turn, keeps their culinary heritage intact.
As I relax into my last glass of wine, I reflect on how much we have to learn from the intangible—not something I will soon focaccia.
If you’re feeling adventuresome, here is the traditional recipe for focaccia al formaggio di Recco.
Easier to make is the Ligurian walnut sauce that pairs well with many pastas. The salsa di noci recipe can be found here.
If you want to book a stay in the region check out Ligurian Holidays.
Ciao for now!